Glencairn Museum News | Number 11, 2017
In 2009 Glencairn Museum began an ongoing initiative to acquire three-dimensional Nativity scenes for our annual holiday exhibition, World Nativities. The goal of this exhibition is to show the universal appeal of the Nativity story, and how individuals around the world seek to give it relevance by relating it to their own spiritual, intellectual, cultural, or regional environments. This year many of the Nativities in our exhibition are on loan from individual artists, the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, and the National Christmas Center & Museum in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia.
World Nativities is co-curated annually by Glencairn’s curator, Ed Gyllenhaal, and museum researcher Kirsten Hansen Gyllenhaal. According to Ed, “We work hard to develop relationships with other institutions that have collections of Nativity art, and with contemporary Nativity artists worldwide. This year we’re exhibiting and interpreting 40 Nativity scenes from 20 countries. Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn, an artisan with a background in stage design, has provided artistic settings for nearly all of these Nativities.”
For the fifth year in a row, Glencairn has been fortunate to exhibit original Nativity scenes by Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan. Michael is from Northeast Philadelphia, and Karen grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey. The married couple have both been illustrators for children’s publications, including Highlights magazine. For the past decade they have been working together designing Christmas ornaments for Kurt S. Adler, Inc. They also use their talents to create handcrafted, highly detailed Nativity scenes, which they make available to the general public at a variety of venues each holiday season. Since 2014 Karen and Michael have been collaborating on a three-dimensional Flemish Nativity made from polymer clay, Styrofoam, wood and cardboard (lead photo, Figures 1 and 2). According to Michael,
“When we first saw the painting, The Census at Bethlehem, by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (in 1566), we were intrigued by the image of Mary and Joseph in a snowy, 16th-century Flemish village. After studying paintings of other Flemish masters, the one thing that struck us was that we had not come across any three-dimensional images of the Flemish Nativity. This work, along with our other Nativity projects, are things that we live with and work on over a period of years.”
Michael crafted the architecture, furniture, and most of the details in the scene. Karen sculpted and dressed the human figures and also made the animals. “Karen looked at artwork of the Madonna and Child by various Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painters such as Hans Memling, Jan van Eyck and Pieter Bruegel. The most striking feature is Mary’s long blond hair. Later in our research we discovered another 16th-century Flemish painting titled, The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1515). The painting depicts an angel with all the characteristics of a child with Down syndrome, and is believed to be the earliest visual depiction of Down syndrome. We have included an angel with Down syndrome in this Nativity standing close by the Holy Family, welcoming the birth of the Christ Child.”
A much smaller Nativity scene in Glencairn’s exhibition, made by Michael Palan, is set within Roman ruins at the top of a small but bustling Italian village. As wise men present gifts to the Christ Child, life goes on as usual, with villagers seemingly unaware of the miraculous event taking place in their midst. The scene includes more than sixty tiny figures made from polymer clay—most measuring seven-eighths of an inch tall. Characters familiar from traditional Italian Nativity scenes are present, including a sleeping shepherd, a Turkish marching band, Pulcinella (a clown-like character wearing a mask), and even a devil hiding in a cave.
Africa is especially well represented in the World Nativities exhibition this year, with Nativities from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Another highlight is a large 19th- and 20th-century Presepio (an Italian Nativity scene from the city of Naples), on loan to Glencairn from the Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia for the second year in a row.
The World Nativities exhibition aims to show the universal appeal of the Nativity story, and how artisans around the world have responded to it. Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes, on the other hand, attempts to explain the origin and meaning of the visual images and symbols that have traditionally been included in these scenes.
A Nativity scene may combine images from several different biblical accounts of the story of the birth of Christ. For example, the story of the wise men is told only in the Gospel of Matthew, and the story of the shepherds is told only in the Gospel of Luke, but many Nativity scenes include both wise men and shepherds. Nearly all Nativity scenes feature the Holy Family and the manger, but additional imagery (such as the ox and donkey) is sometimes added from non-biblical texts produced by early Christian writers, some of which may have originated in oral traditions. In addition, artisans may introduce new elements from their own imaginations. (For more information, see Glencairn Museum’s Web resource, Do You See What I See: Imagery in Nativity Scenes.)
How do you celebrate Christmas in a 20th-century castle? Glencairn’s 45-minute guided “Christmas in the Castle” tour reveals how Christmas was celebrated at Glencairn when it was the home of the Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn family, in addition to highlighting outstanding works of Nativity art throughout the building. Stops on the tour include the Great Hall, Upper Hall, Tower, Chapel, Master Bedroom, and Medieval Treasury. (At the conclusion of the tour visitors may explore the Museum’s World Nativities and Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes exhibitions at their own pace.)
One of the new additions to the “Christmas in the Castle” tour this year is a large, ride-on Steiff donkey, made by the famous Steiff factory in Germany in the late 1940s or early 50s. When Glencairn was a home (1940s to 1970s), the Pitcairn family’s large Christmas tree, which reached beyond the second-floor balcony, was placed in the Great Hall between the bookcases. A number of ride-on toys were kept beneath the tree each year; this large ride-on donkey was donated back to Glencairn by family members. Recently it was sent back to Steiff’s “Teddy Bear Clinic & Spa” in Giengen, Germany, where older toys are refurbished. One of the Pitcairn grandsons has wonderful memories of the ride-on toys during the Christmas season: “Nothing in my life ever exceeded the joy and fascination of unwrapping the latest version of the Steiff toys on wheels that were added every year. . . with any luck you’d get pushed by uncles and aunts to the envy of younger cousins.”